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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013
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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Waters, Sen Larissa
Moore, Sen Claire
Singh, Sen Lisa
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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
(Senate-Thursday, 23 May 2013)
CHAIR (Senator Cameron)
- Ms Garland
Content WindowEnvironment and Communications Legislation Committee - 23/05/2013 - Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013
BRAGG, Ms Jo-Anne, Solicitor, Environmental Defenders Office, Queensland, Inc.; World Wildlife Fund Australia
LECK, Mr Richard Alexander, Great Barrier Reef Campaign Leader, World Wildlife Fund Australia
WISHART, Ms Felicity Jane, Great Barrier Reef Campaign Director, Australian Marine Conservation Society
CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for talking to us today. The committee has received your submission as submission 29. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission?
Mr Leck : No.
CHAIR: Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions—and the emphasis is on 'brief'?
Mr Leck : Thank you very much to the committee for having us along. It is a great rollcall through the day as well, so we appreciate the efforts that you have gone to to hear a range of views. I will quickly touch on the international interest and significance of the Great Barrier Reef, and Felicity will talk about that from an Australian perspective as well in our opening statement.
You are going to hear from some of the most pre-eminent scientists in Australia on the reef. While we can go into detail on that, I think there are people eminently more qualified than us to talk on the details of the science. We have deep concerns about the future of the Great Barrier Reef and at this point the reef is at particularly vulnerable stage. This has definitely been picked up internationally, with the original expression of concern from UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee in 2011. There they used quite serious language to express their shock at the scale and pace of development along the reef.
That was in 2011. In the analysis that we have done since, we have found that in their core concerns relating to the issue of rapid industrial development there has been very little progress either from the Queensland or Australian governments. In fact, you could argue there has actually been some backward steps, particular from the Queensland government side. We think this is a view that is shared by UNESCO. That is reflected in their most recent recommendations that have been provided through to the World Heritage Committee, which is meeting next month.
As part of our WWF International network we have been regularly engaged with World Heritage Committee members. In the last two months I think we have met with 19 of the 21 members. We can report back that the committee members are concerned about the lack of progress from the Australian and Queensland governments, and that the level of regard for the Great Barrier Reef is immensely high amongst the World Heritage Committee. They see it as probably No. 1 or at least top three of the natural sites that have World Heritage status.
From our view it is concerning that I think the view of Australia's management of the Great Barrier Reef has had a fundamental change at that international level from only a few years ago, where it was thought of as very well managed, to the situation now where the language is expressing extreme concern about its future and its current management.
We think that the issues that we are talking about today with regard to industrial development are fundamental to the future of the reef, but also reflects the current failings of management, particularly with the issues of cumulative impact. When we look at what was once thought acceptable with things like dredging and dredge disposal, those things are now no longer considered acceptable—when you look at the latest science and we look at the current declines are happening, particularly in the inshore areas of the reef.
We regard the amendments to the EPBC Act that we are discussing today as important measures to ensure that Australia meets those international obligations that we have been talking about as well as providing a much more comprehensive approach to managing the reef that is sorely needed. I might pass over to Felicity to say a few words.
Ms Wishart : The Australian Marine Conservation Society is obviously an organisation with many members committed to the protection of our marine environment, including the Great Barrier Reef. In January this year we undertook a national poll through Essential Research to look at concerns about the Great Barrier Reef and other environmental issues. Of 15 issues presented to 500 people in the Great Barrier Reef coastal area of Queensland, in South-East Queensland and then nationally—1,500 in all—the Great Barrier Reef rated as the most environmental issue of concern to the community. When people were asked about the condition of the reef—was it in better, worse or the same condition as 10 years ago?—Only eight per cent thought that it was in better condition, about 20 per cent thought it was around the same and 61 per cent thought that it was in far worse condition than 10 years ago. Yet at the same time in the same poll it became apparent that the vast majority of Australians were very unaware of what was going on in terms of the current industrial development agenda for the reef.
So we have along the Great Barrier Reef over 43 projects currently in the pipeline that are likely to have some sort of impact on the Great Barrier Reef. These are industrial developments of various sorts. In particular we are concerned about significant new port development or port expansions because of the consequences from the dredging, the dumping and the shipping in particular. Even on the Great Barrier Reef Queensland coast less than 10 per cent of the community were aware of the proposals for new port developments. Having said that, people were very concerned about the current level of shipping going through the reef. When it was brought to their attention there could be up to 7,000 ships travelling through the reef by 2020, that concern grew significantly. We found that 73 per cent of people supported federal government action to step in to protect the reef if the Queensland government was not undertaking adequate action. Between 56 and 63 per cent of those different communities we tested felt that the Great Barrier Reef had lost out to industrial development and it needed to be made the No. 1 priority for protection.
Ms Bragg : I prepared the submission on behalf of WWF in consultation with them. The key point I would like to make is if we do wish to protect the reef and stop developments being approved to make the strategic assessment ineffective, what are the technical ways we might seek to do that? Essentially, why this bill would be a great step forward and why it would be a good way to partially implement the UNESCO's recommendations is because it imposes clear-cut duties on the minister to not do certain things. Under the current EPBC act, which has many virtues but a number of faults, matters are referred to the minister. They take into account a variety of factors relating to matters of national environmental significance but to date even major industrial developments in and near the reef have been approved. Instead, here we have some clear duties to refuse certain types of developments in certain locations that affect the reef. And, in relation to the strategic assessment, I would like to draw your attention to a particular clause in the bill, clause 24F. Essentially that clause proposes a moratorium on developments impacting the reef until the strategic assessment is completed. That involves not merely the strategic assessment being completed and provided to the World Heritage Commission but also the World Heritage Commission considering it and finding it adequate.
My last comment is about the poor adequacy of state laws to protect the reef. I did a detailed advice, which is foot noted in the submission, about the impacts of recent changes by the Queensland state government. They were all negative in relation to impacts on the reef. I did bring a printed copy of that if it is something you wish to see. Basically, apart from some protection in three reef catchments, there is very poor or no protection in terms of riparian vegetation in catchments leading to the reef.
CHAIR: We will have to table that.
Unidentified speaker: I move—
CHAIR: It is so carried.
Ms Bragg : There was a comment made earlier by a former witness about the role of the ports authority. In that particular document that has been tabled about the legal advice relating to the impacts of recent state legislative change, section 2.6 page 8 details the very inadequate legislative framework under which ports operate. Essentially, ports are not obliged to even take account of principles of ecologically sustainable development in their land use planning. I mention that as an example of the inadequacies of state legislative provisions.
Senator WATERS: Full disclosure—I am a former employee of the organisation that Ms Bragg so capably heads up. Ms Bragg, could you outline for us in summary form what your understandings are of the key recommendations made by the World Heritage Committee regarding the Great Barrier Reef and what it asked various levels of government to do to keep the reef off the List of World Heritage In Danger?
Ms Bragg : Essentially, one of the key recommendations was No. 5, which is referred to at footnote 8 in our written submission. That includes a concern by the World Heritage Committee about the potentially significant impact on the outstanding universal value of the property, and a request that the state party not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long-established major port areas. That, as I understand it, is a key recommendation. It is clear-cut. Provisions of this bill we are discussing today are excellent mechanisms to implement that. For example, section 24D of the bill is a clear-cut way to implement that recommendation.
I believe the Commonwealth has to take a lead. We are talking about the reef; it has outstanding universal value and is of international importance. The state government also has to play a part because other developments which do not come to the Commonwealth for assessment also need to be regulated.
Senator WATERS: Could I ask you to give us a list of the various ways in which you say the Queensland government has weakened its legal protection for the reef?
Ms Bragg : There are quite a few. They are detailed largely in the document I handed to the committee—the legal advice dated 24 January 2013. There are two recent ways which are not mentioned in that written report. First, there is the rollback of vegetation protection provisions by the Queensland government. As I understand it the bill rolling back protection for high-value regrowth, with many hundreds of thousands of hectares at stake, has gone through the state parliament but has not yet been proclaimed to commence. It is not yet law but is expected to be law in the future.
Secondly, and also of grave concern, is an act called the Land, Water and Other Legislation Amendment Act; a component of that act removes the need to obtain a permit for clearing riparian vegetation—that is, in almost all creeks, streams and water courses across Queensland, including many but not all of those in the reef catchment. Once that commences—and it has gone through parliament—there will be no need to get a permit if someone wants to bulldoze vegetation in water courses, creeks or streams. In relation to this, I have been at the Environmental Defender's Office doing environmental law for more than 20 years now, and that was the law back in 1992. I was horrified that even that law was being rolled back.
There has also been a severe weakening of laws and policies restricting and regulating coastal development as outlined in this document, There is also a centralisation of decision-making power that is partly implanted in Queensland, essentially reducing the power of the environment and heritage department and broadening the decision-making power in relation to development of the Deputy Premier, Minister for State Development, Infrastructure and Planning, Mr Seeney. There is a change in structure as well as a weakening of the legislative provisions.
Senator WATERS: Thanks, Ms Bragg. That does not sound like very good news for the reef at all. Mr Leck, you alluded in your opening statement to the importance that the World Heritage Committee places on the reef. I would like to ask if you have a view on this. It seemed to me in reading the draft decisions and the final decisions of the committee that they used quite strong language. Can you talk about whether the veracity with which they spoke is what they normally do?
Mr Leck : This goes back to, as I touched on, that original 2011 decision where the language that was expressed was extreme concern around the developments in Gladstone Harbour. Post that, there was a joint UNESCO and IUCN monitoring mission. I think it is very accurate to say that after that mission that concern was heightened by the scale of development along the length of the coast and not simply confined to their initial area in the southern part of the reef. While there has been some progress on some of the recommendations that the committee made in 2012, particularly in relation to the refunding of Reef Rescue to combat the issues of water quality—which is fantastic and should be welcomed—those core issues relating to coastal development really have not been addressed. So that initial interest and concern that was raised is very much still established in the minds of UNESCO and IUCN and certainly in the minds of the World Heritage Committee members that we have met. I think the reason for that level of concern is that there is an expectation that Australia as a wealthy developed country should be able to effectively manage the reef. If anywhere can manage the reef effectively it should be here. The fact that we have not and that it is in the level of decline that it is does raise that issue with the committee and has global significance.
Senator WATERS: Ms Wishart, you mentioned in your opening statement the dredging, dumping and shipping associated with the various ports and coastal development plans for the reef. Can you talk in reasonably brief fashion about the environmental impacts of dredging, dumping and shipping and also the climate impacts of the burning of those fossil fuel exports on the reef.
Ms Wishart : Certainly. As we have mentioned, there will be scientists coming in later today that can do this more adequately, but we know in broad terms that when you dredge an area the area that is dredged is destroyed. In some cases that will be seagrass beds. Seagrass beds are a very important habitat for a range of inshore species, including turtles, dugongs and various dolphins. They are also an important habitat for nurseries of fish. So they are an important part of the whole cycle of fish on the reef. The dredged spot is then dumped and at least 80 per cent of that is currently dumped back into World Heritage or marine park waters. The science that is emerging shows that this is extremely serious. The fine sediments in particular can be suspended and resuspended a number of times. They can cover seagrass beds and coral polyps and cause significant damage. There is already evidence to show that previous dredgings of significantly smaller levels than are being proposed have damaged reefs in and around Townsville and Magnetic Island, for example, following dredging of the Townsville Port historically. So with the significant proposed increases in dredged floor dumping that are planned for the reef the consequences could be quite dramatic.
Then you have the concerns about shipping. There are a range of issues there. It is not uncommon to have ships striking some of our larger mammals, including dugongs, dolphins and whales. The noise from ships is quite significant. The lighting from ships is also quite significant. So if you have a large number of ships in a relatively inshore area those diesel engines will be thumping away the whole time. The lights will fall out onto the water at night and this can cause damage to turtles through disorientation if they are heading for their breeding grounds and disturbs the habitat of the species that live there. We also have the risk of ballast water being released from the shipping that is moving through the reef. That can carry contaminants. It can carry foreign species which can then invade the reef.
We also have the problem of TBT, an antifouling agent on the ships. While in the past the concern with TBT has largely been with small boats in marinas because they are sitting in the water for a long period of time, we now have a situation where TBT is not banned for large ships internationally. There are still many ships that are covered in TBT, despite international provisions to try and limit it. If you have very large numbers of ships sitting in a particular area, even if it is a different ship each day, the cumulative impact of that TBT could be quite significant. These are areas of study and concern that have not been properly monitored in places like Gladstone harbour.
Then, of course, there is obviously the broader issue of continuing to extract large amounts of fossil fuels from the ground. Many of these ports have been driven by coal and gas development. The more we put greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, the more we will see the consequences for the ocean. It is our oceans that suffer the most from climate change through acidification, sea level rise, temperature warming, increased storm damage, increased cyclones and so forth.
Senator WATERS: Thank you. Unfortunately, that is all I have time for.
CHAIR: Yes, thanks, Senator Waters. I do have to get some other senators involved, including myself. Proposed section 24G deals with the net benefit test. That has been described by some of the submitters as ambiguous drafting. Do you have a view on the principle of a net benefit test? Are you aware of a net benefit test applying anywhere else in any legislative framework? Is it equivalent to the 'better off overall' test in the industrial relations area? Is that the sort of thing we are looking at?
Senator MOORE: I hope not. And who measures it? That is part of my question.
CHAIR: Yes. Senator Moore is just saying, 'Who measures this?'
Ms Bragg : Yes. Unfortunately, I am not well acquainted with the industrial relations test. I have to say a few things about that provision. Firstly, that is an additional provision to the prohibitions and restrictions in the earlier parts of the bill, so I see this particular provision as trying to give an extra layer of protection to the reef over those earlier provisions. I think it would need to be drafted very specifically, because the term 'net benefit' brings to my mind the concept of offsets, where destruction of some environmental values is traded for assistance in protecting those environmental values either in the same physical locality or somewhere else. Certainly what springs to mind is the concept of destroying a certain area which has environmental value but allowing money to be contributed to research into ecological issues and so on. That is not an acceptable form of offset if the aim is to properly protect environmental values. So probably all I could really say is that the term 'overall net benefit' needs to be very carefully drafted and considered. We should not be allowing destruction of the habitat of endangered species. We should not be allowing destruction of the outstanding universal value of the reef. But there may be some types of development which might be appropriately allowed, but only if they very strictly continue to protect the outstanding universal value. I am sorry if that is not a very detailed answer, but the best analogy I can think of is the debate on offsets.
CHAIR: Thanks. One of the issues the committee has to weigh up is the overall EPBC Act, which does try to balance the environment with employment, job creation and industry development. The proposal that has been put forward by the QMC in particular is saying that, if you oppose this bill, then you have a political, anti-resource agenda, and that you are populist and emotive and an emotive ideology is driving that. Does that fit any of your motives? Do you want to comment on that?
Mr Leck : I am happy to comment on that. WWF, AMCS and the EDO are science-based organisations. We are charities. We have very limited resources. So for us to engage in an issue it has to be very real and there has to be a very strong scientific case, otherwise we simply do not have the resources to stretch to it. In terms of whether or not this issue is emotive, I think that, as Felicity said, the reef is incredibly close to the hearts of a huge number of Australians and the international community. So, yes, it probably is emotive in a way, because people aspire to see the reef and know that it is protected into the future. But the issues that are facing the reef are very real and very stark.
CHAIR: Does anyone else want to comment on that?
Ms Wishart : I am happy to endorse what Rick said.
Ms Bragg : This is all about competence, to my mind; it is not about emotion. If UNESCO has made certain recommendations and the reef is under threat, this bill is a pathway to competently implement those recommendations; it is not an emotional matter in the sense of, 'We need to implement those recommendations effectively.' Certain industry groups might prefer vague motherhood statements, but, legally, we need something strong and clear-cut that effectively implements the world heritage commission's recommendations.
CHAIR: There has been a pretty strong statement made by the QRC in their submission—I am sure you have read it. They say they would assert that the bill is not only completely unnecessary, but the issues in the bill are:
… in direct conflict with the principles of ecologically sustainable development … and are solely driven by a political, anti-resources agenda.
You have sort of dealt with the 'political, anti-resource agenda' stuff. Certainly, I would not be placing too much emphasis on that in any report. I do not want to pre-empt it, but I just do not see that as being an appropriate proposition. As to this argument that the bill is in direct conflict with the principles of ecologically sustainable development, who wants to take us to the counterarguments there?
Ms Bragg : My main point would be that we have the principles of ecologically sustainable development in many pieces of legislation and references, including in the EPBC Act itself, though not in the legislation governing ports under Queensland law. It has not worked, has it? That is why UNESCO came out and found that the reef was in dire trouble. That is why the Australian Institute of Marine Science published some credible science which showed that, in the last 27 years to 2012, 51 per cent of the reef's coral cover had been lost and that, while a bit over 40 per cent was due to natural causes, the rest was due to human related causes—coral bleaching and water quality. No doubt, that particular stakeholder would rather we had principles of ESD instead of clear-cut duties, but that is not a way to effectively implement UNESCO's recommendations.
Senator SINGH: I just want to ask a question in relation to process. Obviously, this bill, at 24F, deals with strategic assessments. Could you expand on your views on strategic assessments and whether you think that the current assessment processes that are in place, both state and federal, are adequate, and then could you say how you see this strategic assessment process working in relation to the current processes?
Mr Leck : I think across the board we have been supportive of the strategic assessment process. However, we are starting to get concerned about the delays that have occurred. Originally I think we were looking at drafts in March or April to see the first stage of the strategic assessment. It is a very difficult document to pull together, logistically and probably politically, because you are relying on Queensland and the federal government to do their parts. If we do not see the first component of the strategic assessment prior to the World Heritage Committee meeting next month, it is going to be really difficult for the committee to be able to judge that the Australian government is taking that process seriously and also very difficult for them to judge whether or not progress is being made. That is a comment I would make on the strategic assessment process itself. We think it is very important. We think some elements have been done quite well to date. Some elements have been done less well. But we need to be able to see that, and I think people need to be able to be involved in that process sooner rather than later. Jo, did you want to comment on that as well?
Ms Bragg : Could you repeat your question, because I—
CHAIR: I am sorry, Ms Bragg; we are out of time. Senator Moore, I am not sure if all your questions have been dealt with.
Senator MOORE: I have just got one. I am really pleased that you did say it was okay to be emotive. I got a bit worried about the fact that that has been demonised as a response to this issue. Nonetheless, one of the claims is that this bill goes further than the recommendations of UNESCO, and that has been made by a number of submitters. You are very close to it. Can you put on record whether you believe that the recommendations in this bill, which has been completely driven by what we have heard from people, goes further than UNESCO said? I just want to get that on record.
Ms Bragg : This bill definitely does not go further than UNESCO recommended. In fact, it even has a particular date, a reference point, which is, I think, 20 May this year, so there are other actions that have been assessed and I understand approved prior to that date. UNESCO would not have wanted that to happen. They would have wanted those development processes stopped pending the completion of the strategic assessment. So, just in terms of the time basis to which this proposed bill applies, it does not go as far as what UNESCO would prefer in its recommendations.
If I could just briefly mention it, for completeness: I have run as a candidate for the Greens. I thought maybe that was just something you needed to note on your record, even though my main reason for being here, of course, is 20 years of experience at the EDO.
CHAIR: I do not think, Ms Bragg, that we ask people about their political affiliations or views. That is entirely up to you.
Ms Bragg : I just thought possibly it is of interest for the record.
CHAIR: I do not think being a Green is a problem in terms of how you present to the committee. I do not think you need to say anything about that, to be honest.
Ms Wishart : Could I just quickly add one thing to the question from Senator Moore? Whilst I completely agree with Jo that it does not go further, I think that what we need in terms of legislation in this issue is protection of the reef. We need to guarantee the protection of the reef. It is very clear that, at the moment, the reef is under extraordinary pressure. New developments are not going to help that, regardless of what the Queensland Resources Council says. The legislation that is needed is legislation that will protect the reef based on science into the future.
Senator MOORE: It has been a couple of submitters saying it.
Ms Wishart : If it goes beyond what UNESCO is recommending, then, if that is what the reef needs, so be it.
CHAIR: I think we have run out of time, so thanks very much for your informative submissions here today.